BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Babies born too early have a greater chance of death before they reach their first birthday.

Louisiana has the second-highest rate of premature births in the country, with only Mississippi at a higher rate, according to 2017 statistics from the March of Dimes. Louisiana's preterm birth rate (born before 37 weeks) is 12.6 percent. Nationally, it's 9.8 percent. Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2016 show 8 babies per 1,000 die before they are a year old in Louisiana; the national average is 5.9 per 1,000.

Breastfeeding can give premature babies a fighting chance.

Experts say breast milk contains the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in his or her first six months, and it's packed with disease-fighting substances that protect the baby from illness.

Sometimes, however, it's not possible for a mother to nurse. When that's the case, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using pasteurized donor milk.

That's where milk banks come in, and now, Louisiana has one.

In early March, Ochsner Baptist Hospital in New Orleans opened the Mothers' Milk Bank of Louisiana. It began as a depot site in December 2015, collecting donated human milk and sending it to the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin, which as a member of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, acted as a mentor to Ochsner.

Milk banks screen donors to make sure the milk is safe, nutritious and that it goes to the baby that needs it most. Measures are also taken to make sure the donating mother's baby isn't being deprived of the benefits of her breast milk.

"The Mothers' Milk Bank of Louisiana at Ochsner Baptist was but a dream that, with the help of many, has become a reality. If we wish to impact and decrease infant mortality in our state, then the ability to provide human milk for all babies in need is crucial," says Dr. Harley Ginsberg, section head of neonatology and medical director of Neonatal Intensive Care at Ochsner Baptist. "Research has shown that our most vulnerable patients, critically ill newborns, benefit exponentially from mothers' milk. The generous gift of donor milk has the ability to improve the outcome of these babies and shorten their hospitalization."

Before becoming a full-blown milk bank, Ochsner Baptist ran a milk depot, as does Lafayette General Hospital. Now, Baton Rouge has a milk depot located at The Birth Center on Picardy Avenue.

Before the opening of the milk bank in New Orleans, the three depots shipped about 429 gallons of breast milk to the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin, the nation's largest, which in turn supplies hospitals in Louisiana.

The Baton Rouge depot was the brainchild of Lauren Reed, a mother of two. It provides a place where prescreened nursing moms can drop off their breast milk.

"My first-born struggled to latch, so I was pumping exclusively and filling the freezer," says Reed. "With the freezer packed, I didn't know what to do with all this breast milk. It could have easily gone down the drain. I was aware of blood and organ donation, so I didn't know why you couldn't donate breast milk."

Through her research, she found out about milk banks and immediately knew that's what she wanted to do.

"It was a labor of love," she says with a laugh. "Nursing can be a time imposition by itself, but I also had to do all the shipping, which was quite a feat, but it's wonderful at the same time. Breast milk is considered medicine, not food. Preemies who get breast milk have a much higher chance of survival. ... You're literally saving lives."

Reed also recruited other nursing moms to participate.

"After realizing my own donor journey needed to end, I realized I could serve in another way," she said.

Reed reached out to her obstetrician, Dr. Ryan Dickerson, to help create the Breast Milk Depot.

Dickerson turned over space for the depot at his Birth Center of Baton Rouge, which provides nursing moms with collection containers. When a mom fills it and brings it back, the center staff labels it, freezes it and ships it to a milk bank, originally to Austin but now to New Orleans.

Dickerson says he feels the depot is important because the milk collected provides "life-saving breast milk for high-risk newborns. It's exciting that Baton Rouge women can contribute to this worthy effort."

The Mothers' Milk Bank of Louisiana will make things even easier. It will screen potential donors; receive, process and pasteurize donated milk; and distribute it to Neonatal Intensive Care Units across the state. There are plans to expand the supply to critically ill, older infants.

The milk bank also is adopting Austin's "Teardrops & Milkdrops" program, which allows new moms who have lost an infant to donate their breast milk. According to Reed, studies show this simple act can facilitate healing and somehow create hope during this difficult time. In fact, officials say, the first milk donation processed by Ochsner was from a mother who lost her child.

For information on becoming a breast milk donor, call (504) 703-6455 or visit ochsner.org/services/mothers-milk-bank-at-ochsner-baptist.

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com